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Green Bay Packers Need to Address ILB Position but Not Necessarily in Round 1

Michelle Bruton@@michelle_nflFeatured ColumnistFebruary 27, 2015

Clemson linebacker Stephone Anthony runs a drill at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Sunday, Feb. 22, 2015. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
David J. Phillip/Associated Press

The Green Bay Packers have made it clear their primary personnel focus this offseason is the inside linebacker position. 

"I think the inside linebacker position could probably be compared to where we were last year at the safety position," head coach Mike McCarthy said in his media session at the combine. "Obviously, we had a number of moving parts there. We’ll see what this process that we go through as far as player acquisition, how that affects it." 

The Packers announced the release of inside linebacker A.J. Hawk on Wednesday after the team let Brad Jones go a week prior. If that doesn't underscore how big a hole they have to fill, nothing does. 

Sam Barrington, who started seven games in 2014, will be one of the presumed starters at inside linebacker in 2013. " I like the step Sam Barrington made," McCarthy said at the combine, via ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky. "I thought he made a huge step and that's what you look for." 

Jamari Lattimore, who started five games at inside linebacker in 2014, will become a free agent in March. So not only are the Packers looking to take a top inside linebacker who could start immediately, but they may also need to come back to the position in a later round for depth. They have 2014 undrafted free agent Joe Thomas on the roster as well as fourth-rounder Carl Bradford. 

Yes, the need at inside linebacker is great. Some might call it an exigency. But the most dangerous thing prospect evaluators can do is let need cloud their judgments, and Ted Thompson and his team of scouts are probably the last group in the league to fall victim to that temptation. 

The Packers will take the best inside linebacker available at the position they deem to be a fit with their evaluations—and it may not be with the 30th overall pick. And that's OK. 

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Yes, Ted Thompson's draft history has demonstrated that he will sometimes turn from his best-available-player philosophy and draft for need in the first round when a position is dangerously thin. But he does not reach. Selecting Ha Ha Clinton-Dix with the 21st overall pick in 2014 was a perfect marriage of value and need. Clinton-Dix was projected to come off the board prior to Green Bay's pick. 

This year, the Packers hold an interesting position in Round 1 at 30th overall. They could feasibly take an inside linebacker with a second-round projection without reaching too far...but would it be worth it?

By taking the best available playerwhether that's a cornerback, tight end or defensive tackle—in Round 1 and following it up with an inside linebacker at No. 62, the Packers could walk away with better net talent from their first two picks. 

The reason for that is this year's linebacker class, while fairly deep, is underwhelming. Let's break down some of the top prospects and look closely at the ones—and there aren't many—who could feasibly be drafted in Round 1. 

The 2015 inside linebacker prospects all have moments of greatness on tape, and some flashed at the combine as well. But few, if any of them, are complete, which is something a team taking one of them in the first round would like. 

Here's how the top prospects in this draft break down ordered according to NFL.com's Bucky Brooks' most recent post-combine position rankings and including TCU's Paul Dawson, who doesn't make Brooks' top five. (Dawson was, however, Mike Mayock's No. 1 inside linebacker prior to the combine; Mayock has not released updated post-combine rankings.)

2015 Top ILB Prospects
HeightWeightArm Length40 SpeedShuttleBench Press
Benardrick McKinney, Miss. St.6'4"246lbs33"4.66s4.27s16 reps
Denzel Perryman, Miami5'11236lbs31 7/8"4.78s-27 reps*
Eric Kendricks, UCLA6'0"232lbs31"4.61s-19 reps
Stephone Anthony, Clemson6'3"243lbs32 1/2"4.56s4.03s23 reps
Ramik Wilson, Georgia6'2"237lbs33"4.77s4.51s23 reps
Paul Dawson, TCU6'0"235lbs31 1/2"4.93s4.49s21 reps
Source: NFL.com (* indicates top performer)

Benardrick McKinney (6'4", 246 lbs) far and away has the best size of the group. He is a "productive, steady performer in the middle with above-average size and length for the position but below-average agility," writes NFL.com's Lance Zierlein.

Brooks is even higher on McKinney, calling him "a hard-hitting "Mike" linebacker with the physical skills and intangibles to develop into a Pro Bowl-caliber player early in his career."

McKinney is one of the few prospects in this class who could be drafted in Round 1; the problem is he might be off the board before Green Bay's pick. The Denver Broncos, at No. 28, will also be looking at the position. And in fact that's where NFL Media's Charles Davis has him being drafted in his post-combine mock draft

However, after the combine many analysts don't have any inside linebackers being taken in the first round. In his post-combine mock draft, ESPN's Todd McShay has the Packers selecting nose tackle Jordan Phillips at No. 30 even with McKinney still on the board, acknowledging that inside linebacker is a position "they can address on Day 2." 

That's not because their need there is insignificant but rather based on the value of the class. 

In his post-combine top 50 prospect rankings, NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah ranks Denzel Perryman as the top linebacker in the class—but at No. 31 overall. McKinney follows at No. 38 and then Eric Kendricks at No. 44. 

Perryman's tape still shows a hard-hitting run-stuffer, but he hurt his stock a little in Indianapolis. NFL.com college football writer Mike Huguenin wrote about Perryman's standings after the combine:

Perryman hits a ton and is a throwback linebacker of sorts. But his lack of height (5-10 3/4) is bothersome to some, and he looked slow when he ran his 40 on Sunday (4.78). Not that the 40 time will be the final determining factor, but the other contenders for top pure inside linebacker in the draft were faster: Mississippi State's Benardrick McKinney (4.66, and he is almost 5 inches taller) and UCLA's Eric Kendricks (4.61). Perryman's drill work was uninspiring, too, and he just does not look to be a "twitchy athlete."

Perryman (5'11", 236 lbs) is not a complete linebacker—even his tape shows he really struggles chasing down receivers in coverage, which is part of the reason Green Bay let Hawk go—and his height really hurts his chances at being a Round 1 pick. 

More than a thumper, which Perryman certainly is, the Packers need a rangy player who can chase down tight ends underneath. Zierlein writes that Perryman "lacks coverage traits and is a liability in man coverage."

Another prospect who hurt his standing at the combine is TCU's Paul Dawson; in fact, Dawson's combine performance was so inconsistent with the tape that scouts have raved about how he had to address it afterward. His 4.93-second 40-yard dash was glaringly slower than his classmates', causing him to retort that he isn't "a track star." 

Dawson also didn't help the rumblings he is a character risk for any team that drafts him at the combine. When he addressed that narrative, he said it was due to "being tardy and that he had time-management issues," which isn't much better. 

Sure, his tape is phenomenalZierlein writes he's an "outrageously productive linebacker with a nose for the ball"—but the Packers need a pro-ready starter whose commitment to improving their run defense is unwavering. 

With regard to Kendricks and Stephone Anthony, things start to get exciting. Both show flashes on tape but really improved their stock at the combine. 

Eric Kendricks improved his draft stock at the combine.
Eric Kendricks improved his draft stock at the combine.Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Kendricks, last season's Butkus Award winner, may be the most complete inside linebacker in the class. Where the others struggle in coverage Kendricks "exhibits good play speed and is able to cover man-to-man in space," per Zierlein. His size (6'0", 232 lbs) could be more ideal, but his high football intelligence, which allows him to diagnose plays, and his desire to be great are invaluable traits.

Anthony could be the perfect pick for Green Bay at No. 62. The value would be perfect, and he may turn out to have the best transition to the NFL of any prospect in this position group. Anthony was a top performer in both the 40-yard dash (4.56 seconds) and the 20-yard shuttle (4.03 seconds), two of the most important traits for determining an inside 'backer's athleticism and speed in the middle. 

Of Anthony's strengths, Zierlein writes:

Has desired build for position. Good play speed and is generally under control. Steady, consistent tackler when he's squared up. Has speed to chase to the sidelines and finish the play. Able to cover tight ends in passing game. Breaks to ball quickly against pass. Flashes ball skills and will play through pass-catchers.

Now, if McKinney or Kendricks is available at No. 30, is it guaranteed that Thompson won't take an inside linebacker in the first round? No. Only he and his team of scouts know the grades they have assigned to each prospect. 

But if there's any general manager who avoids reaching, it's Thompson. And this year among this group there's not a consensus first-round pick the way C.J. Mosley was in 2014. 

Per NFL.com's Chase Goodbread, former NFL general manager Charlie Casserly said that many of this year's prospects, such as Perryman and Dawson, could "hang around" until the second or third round, and that's why he thinks the Packers don't need to address inside linebacker in Round 1. 

Another option for Green Bay would be to trade down from No. 30 into the early- to mid-second round, which would both ensure that a top inside linebacker prospect is still on the board as well as give Ted Thompson more picks to address other positions of need. 

Given the scarcity on the roster at the inside linebacker position, the Packers will absolutely address it—possibly twice—in the draft. But Thompson won't panic and overdraft a player because of need...and the team will be much better off for it. 

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